If Donald Trump's presidential campaign were a sports team, it would be hard to stay a fan, simply because the stars on the roster keep changing. Did you like brusque former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski? Political die hards had to watch Lewandowski slowly decline in power before finally being booted from the campaign in June, and joining CNN. Now, with less than 80 days left in the campaign, Trump's Russia-loving campaign chairman Paul Manafort is gone too.
With the latest polls continuing to give a healthy, if not totally comfortable, lead to Hillary Clinton, experts told VICE this latest shake-up may not spell certain doom, but it's a disaster nonetheless.
"It's not that uncommon for candidates to fire their campaign managers, often as a way to divert attention away from some bad news or bad polls," said Melissa Michelson, an author and politics professor at Menlo College whose work focuses on elections. She pointed to similar firings of campaign staffers, like John McCain's early in the 2008 campaign, and Al Gore's early in the summer of 2000. They were fired, she said to "signal to the public that the candidate is changing."
But she added that the Trump campaign dismissals aren't just symbolic scapegoating meant to calm the nerves of donors. Trump is hiring people, and those people are "screwing up," as Michelson put it. Compared to Gore or McCain's campaign jitters, this staff change "reflects differently on [Trump's] campaign," because "his attempts so far to hire people seem to be ending badly," according to Michelson.
Manafort left amid reports that he had illegally dodged some disclosures about operating as a Russian agent in Ukraine—a fact that had drawn criticism on its own. Before Manafort, Lewandowski had battled allegations of battery on the campaign trail. It makes Trump's promise to "hire the best people" look pretty ridiculous.
"The question is can you do this with two-and-a-half months until the general election? That's why this is rather unprecedented," said Richard E. Berg-Andersson, creator of TheGreenPapers.com, one of the first online election trackers. Berg-Andersson likened the change to "when [Democratic nominee George] McGovern had to dump Thomas Eagleton as his running mate." McGovern, who got his ass kicked by Richard Nixon, called the decision to fire Eagleton "the saddest part" of his campaign.
"I don't think it's quite on that level," Berg-Andersson hastened to add.
However, it's worth noting that Manafort was initially hired for a specific task: to shepherd Trump through the primary. "One thing to keep in mind is that Paul Manafort's role in the campaign was to bring a polished political machine to the conventions," said Sarah Rosier, the federal editor of the election-tracking site Ballotpedia. "Manafort did what he was hired to do."
"The hires of Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway represent, in a way, a return to the style that made Trump successful in the primaries: less political polish, more populist fire," Rosier said, referring to Trump's two new campaign heads. Bannon, the new chief executive, is a former spokesman for the conservative news site Breitbart.com, and Conway, Trump's new manager, is a former pollster. Long story short, Bannon is expected to Make Trump Great Again by once again unleashing the candidate's meannness and populism—as if they were ever leashed.
Before Manafort officially left the Trump campaign, analysts like Nate Silver derided the back-to-primary-mode general election strategy as a way to further alienate undecided voters. But according to Brian Balogh, a historian at the University of Virginia and one of the hosts of the radio show Backstory with the American History Guys, there is a fleeting possibility that Conway could work wonders in Manafort's absence for all anyone knows.
"Maybe the new campaign director has a kind of relationship that will make her effective in convincing Trump to stay on message," Balogh said, "but so far nobody has been able to get him to stay on message when the message is something other than Trump."
According to Rosier, if the move really is going to pay off, we'll know soon. "The next few weeks will tell us whether or not the Trump Train can regain some steam," she said.
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